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I got Covid last week, and it knocked me right out. Which meant I spent a lot of time on my couch in front of the TV, watching my new favourite British mystery drama – Father Brown.
I’m a johnny-come-lately to Father Brown, but that works to my binging advantage as there are now 10 seasons to work through on BritBox.
The show, based on the short story series by G.K. Chesterton, follows Father Brown, a Roman Catholic priest played exquisitely by Mark Williams, as he solves crimes in a quaint, 1950s country village, accompanied by a gaggle of unlikely friends and acquaintances, and usually getting under the skin of the local police inspector. It’s the perfect light-hearted and humorous “whodunnit” kind of show.
It’s also a masterclass in pastoral care.
In one of my seminary classes, Professor Danjuma Gibson gave us this basic definition of pastoral care: to bear the presence of a faithful God in any situation. Care can look like a lot of things, he said – bringing a casserole, writing a card, taking someone out for the day. But pastoral care lets a person know that God is aware of, and involved in, whatever is going on in their life at the moment. With your words and listening and prayer and presence, you bear that truth and make it plain.
Father Brown does many things. He solves crimes, he attends parties, he cycles from one end of the village to the other, and, presumably, at some point in the week he writes a homily. But whatever he’s doing, he is bearing the presence of a faithful God in that moment.
Upon the discovery of a dead body, Father Brown kneels, puts on his stole, and prays. When he’s talking to potential suspects, his first statement is always, “If you ever need to talk to someone, St. Mary’s is always open.” When he discovers who the murderer is, and is trying to convince them to turn themselves in, it’s never about solving the case, but about the state of that person’s soul. Yes, Father Brown likes to solve mysteries. But throughout it all, he brings people before God, and bears the presence of God to the people. And he does so as if to talk about God was the most natural and normal thing in the world.
And perhaps that’s what I most admire about Father Brown. He is so at home in his role as shepherd of souls, so at ease when asking a person about his or her spiritual life, so confident when expressing his faith in a God who is actively at work in the world. He doesn’t presume to have all the answers, he lets hard things be hard, and he makes room for people’s doubts and questions. But he speaks a language of faith with such sincerity and ease that usually even the firmest of atheists end up unburdening their soul to him, revealing the crack in their armor where the light might get in.
I admire this in Father Brown, because it’s something that doesn’t come as easily to me. Which seems rather a frightful thing to say as a pastor, but there it is. I can write blog posts and preach sermons, unpacking Scripture and exploring theological truths all day, any day. I pray with parishioners when I visit them in the hospital. I don’t…not talk about God. But I don’t necessarily wear my faith on my sleeve, either. In fact, in some situations – the hair salon for example – I hope the subject of my profession doesn’t come up (it almost always does).
This is in part due to the little dance that almost always happens when people find out I’m a pastor. First you can see the gears shift as they re-work their definition of what they thought a pastor looked like. Then there’s the quick recall of everything that’s already been said, what swear words have been uttered, what uncouth stories have been shared. Then there’s the uncertainty about where to go from here. All of which happens in the span of about five seconds underneath the proffered, “Oh, that’s so interesting!”
Father Brown has the advantage of no one being surprised when he mentions God. One look at his black cassock and wide-brimmed hat, and you know exactly who this man represents. He also has the advantage of living in a place and time when faith was a more assumed part of people’s lives. And there are norms and liturgies he can rely on – the last rites, confession, etc. – that bring him to people and people to him.
So as I binge my way through this murder mystery series, I find myself envious of the main character. I wonder if it would be easier to talk about God with complete strangers if I wore a collar. (Just the other day my co-pastor and I were discussing the community fair coming up at which we’ll have a booth, and how I wished we were a collar-wearing sort of bunch, so we could be more easily identified. We joked that we could just wear really expensive sneakers instead.) I wonder if people – church folk and non – would find it easier to talk about faith if we had more rituals to lean on, words and movements that brought faith into the everyday, and the everyday into our faith.
But I’m also encouraged – and inspired – by this fictional priest. Above all, you get the sense that Father Brown is at home in God. That he, himself, experiences the presence of a faithful God. More than a few times Father Brown finds himself in danger – “all alone!” as the criminals he faces love to taunt. But the priest just shakes his head. “I’m never alone,” he says. And he means it.
And that’s what I – what all of us, I suppose – long for the most. To feel at home in God. To know the presence of our faithful God, in every situation. To be shepherded into his presence. To be pastored.
Who would have thought such pastoring could come, in part, from a fictional priest?